The Problem with Bonus Culture

Browsing the news today, I came across an article entitled, “The Story Behind …” (… being the name of a movie.) Look around, and you’ll see all sorts of articles telling you how something was made, giving you back story, often about a movie or TV series. TV showrunners have become stars, sitting on panels at ComicCon, now the mecca of “making of” promotional backstory. (And to think that, a few years ago, those outside the industry had never heard of showrunners.)

We’re very familiar with this on DVDs and Blu-Rays. It’s rare these days to find a DVD or Blu-Ray that doesn’t have bonus content. This includes short films containing interviews with the cast and crew, deleted scenes, information about costumes, music, sets, and technical information about filming.

Sometimes this can be interesting. If you’re a fan of a specific TV series, for example, you may want to know more about the creative choices that were made, or how the actors saw their characters. But we’ve gotten to the point where, for movies at least, the bonus content is often longer than the movie itself.

If you’re in the film industry, this content is invaluable. But for the rest of us, what’s the point? Bonus content is nothing more than a lagniappe designed to get people to buy the product. Back in the day, when we still bought movies on video tapes, DVDs had extra content, and this was probably designed to get people to buy movies on this new medium and give up on their VCRs. But now, it’s everywhere. It’s on DVDs and Blu-ray’s; it’s even on some classical CDs. I’ve seen “documentaries” on classical CDs showing the performers in the recording studio, or with interviews of them explaining the work. While the explanations can be interesting, do we really need to see the musicians recording in the studio?

Interestingly, it is still rare to see this in books. Occasionally, I come across a novel which has some extra “book club questions” at the back. Sometimes, I see an interview with an author at the back of a book. But I have yet to see a making-of documentary, or any discussion of the techniques used to write a book: which type of computer, Mac or PC; which software; or, if the author actually wrote the book in longhand, which pen or pencil they used.

I find this distracting. There are few movies for which I really care to watch interviews or making-of documentaries. I watched much of the bonus content that was on the Lord of the Rings DVDs, back when they were released. And I’ve watched extra features about some TV series that I really like. But I’ve only ever listened to a director’s commentary once (Almost Famous), and I really don’t care about seeing how costumes and makeup were done.

Why do we need to have this extra content for every movie? It’s starting to make its way into music, and books won’t be far behind. Why can’t people be satisfied with the creative work on its own? If you watch a two-hour movie, do you really need to see another four hours of “bonus features?” Why not just watch the movie again if you like it that much?

I will admit, that, as far as literature is concerned, I do like to dig deeper. I read biographies of my favorite authors, and I have letters and journals of some of the writers I appreciate the most. This is more because I find the creative life interesting, not so much to learn how a particular novel was written. With literature, technique is never discussed, except, of course, in books about technique.

All of this is just another form of marketing; it’s little more than advertorials. The article I saw today, looking at the making of a new movie, is nothing more than a teaser to get people to go to the cinema and pay to see the movie. It’s a movie adapted from a popular novel, and plenty of people who have read the book will already be attracted to the movie. But will this article about how the movie was made attract more people? Wouldn’t it be better if people just went to the movie, and ignored all of the dross? Blame the news outlets, of course; they’re using this filler to get page views.

12 thoughts on “The Problem with Bonus Culture

  1. “Back in the day, when we still bought movies on video tapes, DVDs had extra content, and this was probably designed to get people to buy movies on this new medium ”

    Actually, back in the days, there were usually 2 DVD editions (for the first DVD release). One with the movie and the extra content (on a second disk) and one with only the movie and often only the trailer (on one disk and which was 5-10 € cheaper here in the old Europe).

  2. “Back in the day, when we still bought movies on video tapes, DVDs had extra content, and this was probably designed to get people to buy movies on this new medium ”

    Actually, back in the days, there were usually 2 DVD editions (for the first DVD release). One with the movie and the extra content (on a second disk) and one with only the movie and often only the trailer (on one disk and which was 5-10 € cheaper here in the old Europe).

  3. I think it’s a taste thing. I buy DVDs in part (sometimes large part) for the extra content. I like the DVD format with a main feature plus additional features. I enjoy making of documentaries. Just because the content isn’t to your taste doesn’t mean it’s not of value to others.

    Cheers, Liam

  4. I think it’s a taste thing. I buy DVDs in part (sometimes large part) for the extra content. I like the DVD format with a main feature plus additional features. I enjoy making of documentaries. Just because the content isn’t to your taste doesn’t mean it’s not of value to others.

    Cheers, Liam

  5. My particular bugbear is bonus tracks on CDs which are frequently unissued versions of the songs on the original LP (there’s often a very apparent reason why they were discarded); or “studio outtakes” (where else would an outtake be recorded?) which start off with either unwanted chatter or else the engineer counting down – both of which distract from listening enjoyment.

    • You tend to hear that sort of studio chatter on jazz recordings. Someone I know who was a jazz fan told me he very much likes to hear that banter, to hear the musicians discussing the music a bit. To each their own.

  6. My particular bugbear is bonus tracks on CDs which are frequently unissued versions of the songs on the original LP (there’s often a very apparent reason why they were discarded); or “studio outtakes” (where else would an outtake be recorded?) which start off with either unwanted chatter or else the engineer counting down – both of which distract from listening enjoyment.

    • You tend to hear that sort of studio chatter on jazz recordings. Someone I know who was a jazz fan told me he very much likes to hear that banter, to hear the musicians discussing the music a bit. To each their own.

  7. Do you routinely throw away the liner notes, or not read them? Those are ‘bonus features’ that have been around since 78s and I sorely miss them with downloaded music.

    “Why can’t people be satisfied with the creative work on its own?”

    Because a musical work is so much more than the final performance. Even for fairly modern music with detailed notation, performers have to make choices, and sometimes those choices directly contradict the score (to the annoyance of the composer). How and why those choices are made is fascinating. It’s also part of why live music is so much better than a recording. Not just the better sound, but the whole immersion: watching how the performers interact with one another, and with luck catching some of their jokes to each other.

    Learning about the history, musical forms, basic music theory, how performances are planned, and making your own music at any level (preferably in an ensemble, because so much music is often a team sport) adds a tremendous amount to the enjoyment. Back in the day, there was a huge (civilized) fight on rec.music.classical about whether learning anything about the background of music, either in general or for a specific piece, interfered with the ‘pure’ emotional enjoyment. I doubt if anyone convinced anyone else, but my take is still that even if learning affected the emotional experience, you gain so much more than you could possibly lose. Just as examining flowers under a microscope shows hundreds of new wonders, and knowing some of that hidden complexity enhances the beauty and wonder of entire flowers.

    One of my favorite iPad apps is Touch Press “The Orchestra”. In addition to showing how orchestras work, something about the instruments, and giving a taste of orchestral music styles through history, it has lots of overlaid real time commentary that you can turn on, from Salonen and from the players. Great stuff.

    One of the things I most want out of Apple Music, once I get over the rush of listening to things I haven’t heard for years, is to compare different performances of the same piece and see how much I can catch of the differences. If I can find notes and interviews somewhere about those choices to help me learn, so much the better.

    • Valid points. However, I’ve never considered liner notes to be a “bonus,” I just consider them to be the obligatory contextual information, similar to notes and lyrics on a rock album.

  8. Do you routinely throw away the liner notes, or not read them? Those are ‘bonus features’ that have been around since 78s and I sorely miss them with downloaded music.

    “Why can’t people be satisfied with the creative work on its own?”

    Because a musical work is so much more than the final performance. Even for fairly modern music with detailed notation, performers have to make choices, and sometimes those choices directly contradict the score (to the annoyance of the composer). How and why those choices are made is fascinating. It’s also part of why live music is so much better than a recording. Not just the better sound, but the whole immersion: watching how the performers interact with one another, and with luck catching some of their jokes to each other.

    Learning about the history, musical forms, basic music theory, how performances are planned, and making your own music at any level (preferably in an ensemble, because so much music is often a team sport) adds a tremendous amount to the enjoyment. Back in the day, there was a huge (civilized) fight on rec.music.classical about whether learning anything about the background of music, either in general or for a specific piece, interfered with the ‘pure’ emotional enjoyment. I doubt if anyone convinced anyone else, but my take is still that even if learning affected the emotional experience, you gain so much more than you could possibly lose. Just as examining flowers under a microscope shows hundreds of new wonders, and knowing some of that hidden complexity enhances the beauty and wonder of entire flowers.

    One of my favorite iPad apps is Touch Press “The Orchestra”. In addition to showing how orchestras work, something about the instruments, and giving a taste of orchestral music styles through history, it has lots of overlaid real time commentary that you can turn on, from Salonen and from the players. Great stuff.

    One of the things I most want out of Apple Music, once I get over the rush of listening to things I haven’t heard for years, is to compare different performances of the same piece and see how much I can catch of the differences. If I can find notes and interviews somewhere about those choices to help me learn, so much the better.

    • Valid points. However, I’ve never considered liner notes to be a “bonus,” I just consider them to be the obligatory contextual information, similar to notes and lyrics on a rock album.

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